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Evaluating Evidence of Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Pompeii and Herculaneum are some of the most visited archeological sites in the world, but they could have easily been destroyed long ago. Let's see how early archeology almost ruined the sites, and modern archeology is trying to save it.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Few disasters in human history have captured the imagination as vividly as the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Located near Naples in Southern Italy, these bustling cities were immortalized in history one day in 79 CE, when nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns and their residents under feet of ash.

For a long time, Pompeii and Herculaneum existed as little more than myths. The Roman history Pliny the Younger was the only credible source to describe the event, although his uncle (Pliny the Elder) had written about life in the Pompeii years before.

Then, in the early 18th century, the city was rediscovered by accident, and the tragedy of Pompeii and Herculaneum once again became the source of global fascination. Today, these cities are visited by thousands of tourists a year, and have given us some of the greatest insights into the world of the ancient Romans.

Significance of the Finds

After the Roman Empire fell, the citizens didn't leave. They kept living there. Living cities, no matter how ancient, are difficult for archeologist to work with. They've been changed so many times over the years that it's difficult to get an idea of what ancient life was really like.

Frescos like this survived in Pompeii because it was buried
Pompeii fresco

Since Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried and undisturbed, the excavations revealed prefect capsules of Roman life. We got to see Roman buildings, complete with the painted wall frescos and floor mosaics that would have otherwise been destroyed as styles changed.

We got glimpses of Roman customs in the fact that so many people who tried to flee were buried while carrying religious statues and charms. Morbid? Yes, but also something that we'd have no other way to know about.

History of the Excavation

Pompeii and Herculaneum were first really rediscovered around 1710, when a local man was digging a well. Early excavations began a few decades later, but this was far from archeology as we know it.

These excavations were financed by princes and lords who wanted valuable, Roman-era art to add to their collections. To get to these pieces, diggers tunneled through walls and even used gunpowder to blast away obstacles, destroying things they didn't see as valuable.

The antiquarian hobby of collecting trinkets from Pompeii continued throughout the century. It wasn't until the rise of Napoleon in France that things really started to change.

Caroline and Fiorelli

Napoleon, with his imperial inclinations, was fascinated by ancient Rome, as was his sister, Caroline. Caroline became Queen of Naples as Napoleon consolidated power, and she commissioned the first systematic studies of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Archeologists started mapping out the city walls, gates, and roads.

Much of Caroline's work was left unfinished after the fall of Napoleon, but it was resumed after Italy was unified into a single country in 1861. The king, Victor Emmanuel, was interested in better preserving ancient Roman sites as a way to celebrate Italian heritage.

He left Pompeii to Giuseppe Fiorelli, who conducted the first professional, systematic excavations. Fiorelli is greatly responsible for Pompeii and Herculaneum being uncovered scientifically, with every item given equal scientific value, whether it was a peasant bauble or aristocratic marble bust.

Fiorelli also introduced a major innovation that would define how people understood these sites. The hardened volcanic soil covering Pompeii was filled with unusual cavities, created as ancient people were buried and died. Then the earth hardened around them and held that shape as the bodies decomposed.

Fiorelli started pouring liquid plaster into the cavities. When it hardened, the rock was chipped away, and what remained was a cast showing that person's body at the moment of death.

Cast of a victim from Pompeii
pompeii cast

This was an incredible archeological discovery, one that lets us empathize with the victims in a way seldom possible. It also presents one of the many unique challenges of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

All archeologists have to deal with the ethical implications of uncovering the past, often including human remains. This situation is unique, however, and the ethical implications of how best to treat the victims of these cities with respect and dignity has been one of the longstanding issues of the sites.

Conservation and Reconstruction

Once excavated, the cities were again exposed to the elements. Conservation and reconstruction efforts began in the early 20th century, but these often caused more damage than they prevented.

Archeological excavation at Pompeii in the late 19th century
Pompeii excavation

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